Freshwater Turtles

By far the most numerous turtles are those that inhabit fresh water. Some prefer running water, other kinds are found in still or brackish water. Some kinds seldom leave the water, others spend a great deal of time sunning themselves or foraging for food on land. There are so many kinds of freshwater turtles that the following includes only families represented in the United States.

Snapping Turtles

Two kinds of snapping turtles inhabit United States waters. Both are noted for their aggressiveness on land, where they will attack large animals, including humans, if molested. In water they are less aggressive; they do not hunt, for example, but lie in wait, for prey. They have rough carapaces and large heads, limbs, and tails.

How Did the Snapping Turtle Get Its Name?

The common snapping turtle has a large head with powerful jaws. It also has a long saw-toothed tail. The snapping turtle is one of the biggest freshwater turtles. The shells of common snappers can be 19 inches (47 centimeters) long. The males grow larger than the females.

These turtles eat snails, mussels, fish, and water plants. After catching their prey, they use their hooked jaws to tear the food into bite-sized chunks.

The Common Snapping Turtle

is found in still water in southern Canada, and in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains south to Mexico. It weighs up to 60 pounds (27 kg) and may reach a length of 18 inches (45 cm). Related species are found in Mexico and Central and South America.

The Alligator Snapping Turtle

is found in the southern and central United States. It is America's largest freshwater turtle, often weighing up to 100 pounds (45 kg) and reaching a length of 2 1/2 feet (75 cm).

How Does an Alligator Snapping Turtle Fish?

The alligator snapping turtle carries its own “fishing bait” inside its mouth. In the middle of its tongue is a long, thin piece of pink flesh. When the turtle holds its mouth open, this flesh looks like a squirming worm! A hungry fish sees it, swims up close to look, and snap! The turtle has a meal.

Alligator snappers are the largest turtles in North America. Some grow more than 2 feet (60 centimeters) long and weigh over 200 pounds (91 kilograms). These turtles have hooked jaws and long, alligatorlike tails. They also have prickly scales on their necks.

Mud Turtles and Musk Turtles

This family of still-water turtles includes some of the smallest turtles in the world. They range in length from 3 1/2 to about 6 inches (9 to 15 cm). They have smooth, highly arched carapaces.

The Mud Turtle

is distributed throughout the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, and is also found in Mexico and Central and South America.

The Musk Turtle

is found in the central and eastern United States. It gets its name from the musky, unpleasant odor it secretes when annoyed.

Which Turtle Is a Stinkpot?

The common musk turtle is one turtle you wouldn’t want to anger. Like a skunk, this turtle releases a foul smell when it’s disturbed. That’s why it’s often called a stinkpot.

This turtle is a member of the mud and musk turtle family. Like many members of this family, the stinkpot spends much of its time in the water. There it feeds on plants, mollusks, small fish, and insects. The stinkpot also eats carrion, which is the remains of dead animals. When looking for food, this musk turtle often walks along the bottoms of streams or ponds instead of swimming.

Stinkpots are small turtles. Few adults grow more than 6 inches (15 centimeters) long. These turtles may be tiny. But they have large heads, strong jaws, and very mean bites.